"A well-known Zen Buddhist teaching story highlights the need to 'practice patience' if one intends to make the most of his or her abilities, gain insight, and achieve happiness.

"A young man approached the venerable master, seeking guidance. 'If I meditate eight hours a day and study the Sutras four hours every night,' he asked, 'how long will it take for me to gain enlightenment?'

" 'Ten years,' the master replied.

"The novice was taken aback. 'That long?' he gasped. 'Well, then, what if I practice for ten hours a day and study for six? How long then?'

" 'Twenty years,' said the master.

" 'But how can that be?' the incredulous novice wondered aloud.

"The master shook his head and sighed, 'For someone who is in such a hurry, enlightenment does not come easily.'

"The master knows very well that spirituality doesn't operate on a timetable. It requires aspirants to exercise patience through those long plateaus during which enthusiasm wanes and hope falters. The process cannot be hurried, and impatience is antithetical to the whole enterprise. The breathless inquiry — how long will it take — suggests to the master that this young novice is easily discouraged. Stop thinking about the future, the master advises. Just settle into your practice and learn to enjoy the subtle yet considerable rewards of being fully present for each new and original moment.

"This brief story could certainly serve as a guiding metaphor for modern American life. While most of us are not as eager for enlightenment as that young novice, we seem to be in a big hurry to fulfill whatever aspirations and ambitions we do have. One reason for this, Oxford University economic historian Avner Offer argues, is the relatively high level of material well-being most Americans enjoy. For all the benefits it confers, a successful free enterprise system 'breeds impatience.' More modest degrees of wealth, on the other hand, 'foster reciprocity and commitment.' As an example, Offer cites the declining number of people who are willing to make a long-term investment in their marriages. For some people these relationships are like products purchased at a mall: turn them in if they don't work out.

"Sustainability isn't about the quick fix or the cheap solution. Generally it means making a commitment and trying, as best we can, to honor it. In any worthwhile enterprise, from protecting the environment to preserving a relationship, we are going to encounter difficulties. The good life is not a problem-free life. In point of fact, the process of overcoming adversity often produces some of the most rewarding experiences we will ever have. Human beings need to be challenged to 'test their mettle,' as it were. Throwing in the towel at the first sign of trouble or small inkling of distress may be the easy thing to do, but it doesn't help our self-concept. Most of life's troubles can be overcome if we are willing to work through them with patience."